Years ago, I created a classification system for the books I read. (Are you surprised?) It wasn’t anything formal, and the criteria was simple, and completely subjective. There were (and are) three kinds: books that stuck in my mind like mud, that left a kind of stain that had to be cleaned or broken down; books that didn’t have much of an effect on me at all; and books that were the mental equivalent of a spring cleaning, where just reading them transformed my mood. The middle group covers most everything I’ve ever read. There are far too many of the first kind. The last, though, are precious, and I rejoice when I find one.
This isn’t to say that the other two kinds can’t be useful. The middle kind can sometimes have cool ideas in them, or one part that really shines. Even the first kind, which I will not read more than once, can make me think through things I haven’t thought before, and come up with perspectives I never had, just because they did affect me in a way I didn’t like. But then, even the worst things in life can be a good bad example.
But the first kind, the beautiful kind…
Most of you know that for me, Perelandra tops that list. There is something about the clear, strong, vivid way Lewis painted that story that refracts light into my mind. The purity of the narrative, the forthrightness of the subject, the no-holds-barred attack on the foundation of good and evil seems to bring the whole world out into brighter relief. I get to the end, and the ecstatically poetic description of the nature of the entire universe, and I feel as if Ransom’s not the only one waking into sunlight. A lot of books seem diluted by the author’s language, or changes in culture, or vague ideas, or some shadow of fear. Perelandra, however, reads like potency itself.
It’s not just books that can do this. It can be movies, or music, or TV, or any kind of creativity. I’ve seen photos do it, or even food. There are places that function that way, there are people—wonderful people—that somehow, for all that people aren’t perfect, fit the third kind. Being in their presence is sheer delight, talking with them clears out cobwebs and frightens off shadows. I walk away thinking, “Yes, that’s how it is. Yes, there is peace. Yes, I can take whatever happens next.”
But I think we forget that it’s not the things themselves that do this. Perelandra‘s ink and paper, words written by a guy who died almost fifty years ago. Music is notes and people are imperfect, and there are times when their beauty fails us. And I think that the failure comes when we start thinking that whatever-it-is makes things all better by its own existence. Tea makes me happy, but it’s no buttress against uncertainty or loss. I can lose myself in a story for a little while, but eventually I’m going to come up for air and find that nothing has changed. If I listen to a piece of music too often, its power fades. The goosebumps are gone and it’s just notes. If you go back to the same person again and again expecting them to fix you… they’re only human. They can help, but only so much.
And the thing itself is atoms and energy, arranged a little differently from every other bit of atoms and energy, all transient, all dissolving in the end. We breathe, and the illusion is gone in a wisp of smoke.
What made them so beautiful in the first place? What caught our eyes and ears and transformed that one moment? Why did it feel like waking up refreshed? It was not the thing itself, but the meaning behind it.
I think of the weddings I’ve been to, and I’ve seen a fair share. But I’m never so happy about it as when I know the two people involved and I can hear the meaning behind the vows, that the ceremony itself is the artful manifestation of something much deeper and more profound. The wedding between two people who really do understand the beginning of love? Right, now I’m crying. But all the satin and lace and fancy food in the world on their own are hollow, and a wedding without meaning is worth less than a potluck between good friends.
Why do some stories darken my brain and make me feel the need for a shower? It’s not gore or violence or any other dark act on its own, but depravity, apathy, moral quagmires with no answers, and wallowing in things I hate. It’s hopelessness and cynicism, and when cruelty goes unpunished or even praised. Why do some stories go in one ear and out the other? They didn’t have meaning. Maybe the author thought they did, but there was nothing lasting in the prose. The bright books have lightning bolts of meaning in them. They can be terrifying, they can be depressing, they can have moments of sheer sorrow and loss, but they do so in service of a truth that rings clearly, a clarion call to the morning regardless of what went on in the night.
As long as we keep chasing things, we’re going to find out that they’re nothing. We’ll gorge ourselves on them to find that we’re hungrier than when we started. The beautiful things will lose their flavor almost right away, that initial savor dissolving into air before we can really know what was in it. The pleasures remain on the surface, but once you break the skin, once you dig in them at all, they’ll be gone. If we look to the meanings, however, they go on down forever.
Love, joy, friendship, honesty, sacrifice, sorrow, loss…
A world without meaning is a world of surface pleasures, images that might well be hallucinations. With meaning, they have purpose, and solidity, worth, and impact. Without meaning, our whole planet is a shared delusion. With meaning, a dream can change the universe.